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Book Review: “Numbers Rule Your World” by Kaiser Fung

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I am working in a statistically inclined workgroup at the University of Stuttgart, hence the title of the book naturally attracted me. Kaiser Fung tells stories in five chapters in his book “Numbers Rule Your World: The Hidden Influence of Probabilities and Statistics on Everything You Do” on the daily use of statistics. By “daily use” I mean the use in settings or for cases that are directly applicable or even influence our daily lives.

What are examples of such stories? People across the USA got sick, and it was unclear why. How do you find out what the source of the illness is? How can you find out, that the source was one spinach field in California? If you live in a city, and you rely daily on driving cars to get to work, you would be quite happy to know that somebody is making sure that your travel time is as short as possible, right? How is that travel time minimized?

When teaching statistics or subjects with statistical basis, I find that newcomers to the field of statistics, or even people who don’t use statistics on a regular basis are not used to “statistical thinking”. This lack of use or lack of being used to frequently results in hesitation against using or even in refuse to use statistics. Hence I think hearing about those very applied stories helps a lot for getting used to statistics. “Statistical Thinking” is a term actually used by Kaiser Fung when he explains why he wanted to tell these stories.

Particularly, there are two topics that play a significant role in Kaiser Fung’s stories which I want to expand on in two upcoming posts:

  • what problems arise when dealing with magnitudes of extreme (weather) events
  • statistical testing tends to be an unliked topic, but one of Kaiser Fung’s stories puts a current and rather interesting perspective onto testing: how do you find out if somebody has used substances that increase his or her physical ability when doing sports. Especially, Kaiser Fung explained in great depth the issues of “false positives” and “false negatives”.

Before I will expand on these two issues, let me tell you that I really loved reading those stories. They are well written, I think well understandable for somebody who is not experienced or even trained in “statistical thinking”. Finally, a big plus is a longer than normal “conclusions” section, where Kaiser Fung tries to put the underlying basic thoughts of each story into almost all the other stories’ context.

Written by Claus

May 1st, 2010 at 11:26 am

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